The King had an obligation to ensure peace and justice. As the highest feudal lord, he heard disputes between his tenants in chief. It was the basic principle of feudalism that a tenant who could not obtain justice in his lord’ court, could seek it in his lord’s court.
There also existed the concept of the King as a font of justice, giving justice to those who were unable to obtain it elsewhere. In this context, the curia adjudicated on matters regarding breach of the peace and denial of justice elsewhere.
In early medieval times, the judicial and administrative functions of the King and his Council were not separated. The so-called curia Regis or King’s Council comprised the tenants in chief. i.e., the persons holding land directly from the King, the higher nobles together with lower ranking persons, some at the King’s discretion. The King’s Council centralised justice, and from it, came the institutions of government, parliament and the courts.
There seem to have been two categories of meetings. Meetings of the entire curia were held three times annually in Easter in Winchester, Whitsun in Westminster and Christmas in Gloucester. The King appeared in person. Legislation was enacted and disputes involving magnates resolved.
Meetings of smaller groups of the curia dealt with the regular business and day to day administration. This was dealt with by permanent groups of the King’s principal ministers. This included the chancellor, and justiciar. Over time specialist groups emerged dealing with different aspects of the administration.
The courts and various departments of state and the courts emerged from the Council. The Council decided appeals and cases removed from lower courts. It dealt with collection of royal revenues and heard pleas concerning the King.
Local to Royal Courts
Over time centralised justice, replaced local justice. Royal courts had greater powers and could ensure enforcement and execute judgment. They offered trial by jury in a basic form, which gradually replaced older forms of proof. Local and customary courts such as manorial courts declined in power. This was due in part a requirement to initiate certain types of action in the King’s court.
An ordinance of 1179 allowed an alternative to trial by battle in the Royal Court. The case was considered by a group of independent, impartial neighbours. At the end of the 12th century enhanced jurisdiction was given to the King’s courts in relation to recovery of land.
Statute of Gloucester, 1278 in effect provided that disputes of greater than 40 shillings were removed from the local courts to the King’s courts in most cases.
Common Law Courts
Over time, the judicial side of the King’s Council divided time, and by the 12th century the following common law courts had developed:
- Court of Exchequer.
- Court of Common Pleas.
- Court of Exchequer Chamber.
- Court of King’s Bench.
- General Courts of assize
By the 12th century, the finance and revenue side of the curia Regis was undertaken by the Court of Exchequer. Sheriffs was summoned twice a year to Westminster. Preliminary accounts were taken at Easter, and the finally accounting took place at Michaelmas (29 Sep)
The process of collecting tax and revenue and resolution of disputes surrounding it gave birth to the revenue jurisdiction of the Exchequer. The Exchequer had been the first offshoot of the curia regis. By the 13th century, the Exchequer of Account and Receipt became distinct from the Court of Exchequer, known as the Exchequer of Pleas. The former developed into the Treasury.
Specialist clerks were appointed to the Exchequer, the principal being the chief baron. At the time of Edward II, the chief baron was a lawyer and one of the specialists in Exchequer jurisdiction. By the 16th century the Exchequer barons accompanied common law judges on circuit.
The jurisdiction of the Exchequer developed for a number of technical reasons arising from shortcomings in other courts and from certain privileges and rights on the part of officers The civil and common law jurisdiction of the court developed by legal fictions and by the late middle ages, it was encroaching on the jurisdiction of other courts’ jurisdiction. The court had an equitable jurisdiction as well exercised by the treasurer, Chancellor or the Exchequer and barons.
The Exchequer’s common law jurisdiction arose out of a fictional claim that the person is a debtor of a King and could not pay duty the defendants paid to pay failure to pay the debtor. The fiscal jurisdiction involved claims by the King against debtor.
The Exchequer used a writ of subpoena to assume equitable jurisdiction. Justice was rendered the late middle ages on the basis of natural justice on a less formal, unrigid basis than the common law courts. The equitable jurisdiction was passed to the Court of Chancery in 1842.
By the late 12th century, the judges of the curia regis commenced to sit as a permanent court hearing common pleas between subject and subject. Where they did not determine cases that failed to do justice, the matter was referred to the King’s Council. The court followed the King on itinerary through the Kingdom.
Magna Carta provided that the court of common pleas should be heard in a single place and should not follow the King’s court. By the beginning of the 13th century, it was separated from the Council and set permanently in Westminster. The sole right of audience in the court vested in sergeants at law.
The court was administered over by a chief justice of the common plea. Clerks were appointed to enter pleadings on the rolls of courts and assisted in costs and technical matter. One side of the court dealt with preliminary matters arising from pleadings while another dealt with hearings
The court was the busiest common law court in the middle ages. It dealt with disputes and pleas between King’s subjects other than those affecting royal rights. This included cases for debt covenant and detinue It heard actions regarding real property. It issued the writs of habeas corpus, certiorari and prohibition. It heard disputes moved from the royal courts by writ.
The court declined as it was usurped by the King’s Bench, and the Exchequer in certain areas themselves using fictions. These latter courts had greater powers to enforce their judgements due to their concern with royal rights.
The Court of King’s Bench separated from the curia regis last. It was closer to the King in its earlier manifestations and was held before the King himself initially. Historically it was termed justices assigned for the holding of pleas before the King himself.
It was from the curia regis around 1230 and a Chief Justice later Lord Chief Justice of England was appointed. Its close association with the King remained until the early 15th century. It travels followed the early medieval Kings on their travels. In his absence, it lapsed in earlier times.
By the early 15th century, it travelled the Kingdom to carry out some of the functions of the Eyre. After the beginning of the 15th century, it stayed in Westminster. Until 1465, the King sat in person. James I sought to sit, but was dissuaded by Coke.
By the 15th century, barristers had sole right of audience. That was eventually assimilated under the Judicature Act into the High Court of Justice.
The Court of King’s Bench dealt primarily with pleas of the crown initially. These are offences against the peace and dignity of the King, and effectively the more serious criminal offenses. It also maintained control over officials and lower courts through the use of so-called prerogative writs.
It heard criminal cases in first instance, and also heard cases on appeal. The writs of certiorari were akin to modern judicial view. Certiorari could transfer civil and criminal matters in other courts, both civil and criminal to the King’s Bench. The case was heard by the bench or sent to trial at nisi prius or sent back to the county whence it came from.
A writ of error may issue where there was an error on the face of the record. A right of rehearing allowed for rehearing in King’s Bench, where proceedings in lower courts were flawed.
Civil jurisdiction was also exercised in the first instance and on appeal. In the first instance matters typically involving a breach of peace such as trespass were heard. Trespass on the case expanded and increased its jurisdiction. Civil jurisdiction was increased substantially by the use of fictions.
The court exercised jurisdiction as an appeal court through a number of mechanisms. A motion for a new trial developed. The writ of error was available to correct errors of the face of the record in civil matters.
The King’s bench also exercised civil jurisdiction over officials by the prerogative writs the equivalent of modern judicial reviews. They included certiorari removing a case from a lower to a higher court, prohibition, restraining the lower court or body, mandamus compelling the exercise of a function, Quo Warranto, until enquiring into the authority of an official and habeas corpus issued from King’s bench.
The Court of Exchequer Chamber was distinct from the Court of Exchequer. The Courts of Exchequer Chamber were the first appeal courts as such. Earlier appeals were in the nature of judicial review type remedies here there were formal errors on face of records. It appears that the reference of Exchequer Chamber may refer to meetings of common law judges in a room adjoining the Exchequer.
The court of error was created in 1357 to consider and determine errors in the common law side of the Exchequer. It comprised the Lord Chancellor Treasurer, the justices of the King’s bench and common pleas and other sage persons. The court expanded in 1585 was to consider and determine errors on the King’s bench, on the civil side. It comprised the exchequer barons and justices of the common pleas.
The courts of equity considered cases arising from the equitable jurisdiction of the exchequer. It comprised the chancellor of the exchequer, barons of the exchequer and Lord Treasurer.
The Court of Assembly of Judges which arose informally discussed cases of particular importance. It comprised justices of the superior courts and sergeants at law.
Resolutions of this court were not judgements as such but were binding on lower courts and practice. Judgements of the Exchequer Chamber by judges carried the greatest authority.
The Court of Exchequer Chamber was established in 1830 to hear appeal from all the common law court. There was a further appeal to the House of Lords. It was made up of judges of the common law courts other than those for whom the appeal was taken. Jurisdiction was passed to the Court of Appeal in 1873.
Justices of the curia regia travelled through the counties to hear criminal and civil matters form at least the 12th century. England was divided into six circuits for revenue and judicial purposes. By 1176 there were three itinerant justices on each.
The justices of the Eyre met in the county court and undertook judicial supervisory and administrative functions. The general Eyre investigated the county affairs in the county towns in the 12th, 13th and 14th century. The Eyre was presided over by a King’s justice. There was occasionally division into civil and criminal sides.
Every seventh year or so, each county’s affairs were subject to more detailed enquiries. Pursuant to a writ the sheriff convened the special sessions of the county court presided over by the justice.
Each element of the county community was to be represented. The sheriff was to be given account of all doings, non-doings and misdoings since the last Eyre. A series of questions covering judicial and administrative affairs were administered and checked by justices from the records. False answers were subjected to fine. Franchises were to be proved and claimed. Failure to apprehend criminals might result in amercement, which is in the nature of a fine.
In practice the Eyre was an opportunity for the Crown to raise revenue.
The Eyre exercised equitable jurisdiction to some extent. County court proceedings might be heard at the end of the Eyre. The practice of the general Eyre ended in the reign of Richard II.
Courts of Assize
The courts of assize were travelling royal courts sitting in various parts of the realm. The itinerant justices principally heard criminal matters. Under Henry II, the Kingdom was divided into circuits. Justices were sent on circuit several times a year.
The common law judges were sent on assizes. The sergeants at law and others might be given a commission enabling them to exercise jurisdiction.
Magna Carta provided that certain key writs were to be held in the county where the lands were situated.
The King sent two justices into each county on four occasions each year, and the justices together with four knights selected by the county court were to hold the assizes.
Statues of nisi prius, 1285 required that personal actions originating in the King’s bench or common plea side required a jury to assemble at Westminster, unless the matter had been dealt with earlier (nisi Prius) by justices of assize of the county concerned.
The hearing at nisi Prius was not a hearing of the entire action. Pleadings might be heard at Westminster and the verdict of the jury at assize sent to Westminster so the judgement might be entered. The commissioner of assize was not allowed to enter judgement at this stage. Later the entire trial could be conducted at assize.
Certain assizes had criminal jurisdiction. Criminal offenses could be tried by judges under the royal commissions of Oyer and Terminer and general jail delivery. Oyer and Terminer allowed the commissioner to hear serious crimes presented by the grand jury. Jail delivery allowed the trial of persons in the county jail imprisoned and awaiting trial.